'Punch and Judy' politics back in town
Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised not to indulge in personal attacks during the election campaign - before immediately attacking Micheál Martin for his record on health.
He was speaking after the Fianna Fáil leader unveiled a massive advertisement accusing the Fine Gael leader of reneging on pre-election promises.
The two leaders firmly put the 'Punch and Judy' fight - that Mr Martin said he would take out of politics - back into the equation yesterday in an indication that this is likely to be the most negative campaign ever.
Mr Martin seemed shocked when reporters questioned why his first big play of the election race was a billboard of Mr Kenny, complete with the Fine Gael logo, rather than something outlining a Fianna Fáil policy plan.
He was forced to deny claims that he was engaging in "negative" and "dirty" politics.
"That's a positive campaign because it's highlighting a fundamental policy issue," he said.
But the Fianna Fáil leader, who set up the HSE when he was Health Minister, refused to commit to ending the trolley scandal if in Government.
And he launched a bizarre attack on media commentators who he said are treating the election as a foregone conclusion.
Referring to himself in the third person, Mr Martin said he is the only party leader being repeatedly questioned about his coalition prospects.
"No one is saying to Enda, 'what happens if you don't get a majority?' The only party leader that has been asked this question in the last month or six weeks has been Micheál Martin"
Two hours after Fianna Fáil unveiled the advertisement, Taoiseach Enda Kenny claimed not to have seen it - but said, laughing: "Should I be terrified of this, I wonder?"
He added: "Contrary to Fianna Fáil fears, I will not, and nobody in my party will, indulge in personal attacks on anybody in Fianna Fáil or indeed any other party."
Then he hit out at "a former health minister" without naming Mr Martin - who was minster from 2000 to 2004.
"I'm going to read you a quotation from a very famous person: 'Permanently end waiting lists in our hospitals within two years through a combination of bed capacity, primary care, secondary care and targeted reform initiatives.' You can figure out who it was. He happened to be the Minister for Health back in 2002," he said.
Asked to say who the person was, Mr Kenny quipped: "It's not a six-mark question."
Within Fianna Fáil, there was mixed views in relation to the poster unveiled by the party leader.
Some TDs privately said they believed the depiction of Enda Kenny could backfire.
"It's negative and completely stupid," said one senior TD.
Others, however, believe the anti-Enda Kenny message will prove effective.
Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesman Sean Fleming said Fine Gael has consistently been attacking his party.
"It's extraordinary someone should be pointing the finger at Fianna Fáil when Fine Gael are masters of negative campaigning," he told the Irish Independent.
Cork TD Michael Moynihan added: "[These] claims are mind-boggling."